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Protect the G.O.A.T.? Bucs' Tristan Wirfs acing a daunting rookie test

Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht still has the sticky notes that his 7-year-old placed around the house in April of last year. On them were names of players he should draft.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 NFL Draft was unlike any that came before it, with many general managers and team shot-callers making their selections from home, surrounded by their families rather than their scouting staffs. So after Tampa traded up to select Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs with the 13th overall choice, Licht had a big hug with his wife and their three children instead of high-fiving members of the organization celebrating the addition of what they believed would be a cornerstone of their future.

The mood at the Wirfs' household was apparently a bit different.

There obviously was jubilation within the family from Mount Vernon, Iowa. But after the 320-pound, 6-foot-5 right tackle fielded calls from the Bucs coaching staff that night, something began to consume him. He described it in a video interview posted by the Bucs as a "wave of terror" about the fact that he would be blocking for the G.O.A.T., Tom Brady. That feeling, he said, lasted from draft night in late April until the first day of training camp at the end of July.

Wirfs would have had every right to panic. Was any 2020 draftee facing more pressure in their rookie season than Wirfs? Sure, three quarterbacks went in the top 10, but were they in a situation where anything short of a Super Bowl would count as a wasted season? Of course not. When you go through all the players selected, 255 in all, none was headed into a role with more riding on their immediate success.

"I don't," Buccaneers offensive line coach Joe Gilbert confirmed when I asked him if there was a player under more pressure than his right tackle this season. "As soon as Tom joined the organization, the level of expectation for the guys up front went through the roof."

Within those three months, you can imagine Wirfs' mind swirling with fear of failure and pressure before stepping on a field with the six-time Super Bowl champion.

You're not only expected to start Day 1 for a team that went 7-9 a year ago, but you play a key role in protecting the soon-to-be-43-year-old, relatively immobile quarterback who just happens to be the greatest player of all time, and whose arrival provided your team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. You look at the list of All-Pro and Pro Bowl pass rushers you'll be facing during the season. Then you think about how you won't have any offseason or preseason games to prepare for any of this. Lastly, Brady, who came to town as one of the biggest free agents in NFL history, will be learning a new offense for the first time in 20 years. What could go wrong?

"Wave of terror" seems like an apt description.

Fast-forward roughly nine months from draft night, though, and Tampa Bay is on the doorstep of winning that expected Super Bowl title. Wirfs, who turned 22 in January, is the only player on the Bucs who played every snap -- 1,284 -- thus far. He's allowed just one sack. One. And that includes three playoff games.

"I thought he should've been in the Pro Bowl," head coach Bruce Arians said firmly on a Zoom call heading into the Wild Card Round. "He's a guy that's given up one sack all season as a rookie -- it's unbelievable. When we run behind him, there's a lot of movement, so you couldn't ask anything more of a rookie offensive lineman, for sure."

Coming into a season with so many unknowns, Wirfs decided not to stick with his normal habit of setting goals, which dates back to high school. Instead, he put his head down and leaned on the work ethic that nearly every teammate or coach brings up when asked about him publicly. Arians knew how physically gifted his right tackle was. They knew his combination of strength, athleticism and intelligence was rare. Knowing Wirfs' attitude, Arians told his assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin at the start of training camp to "take the kid's gloves off and let him play."

"There was a lot of pressure, but being around the kid every day, you wouldn't know it," Gilbert told me. "He just came out and worked hard and did a great job. From a technique standpoint, from learning the offense, I really can't say enough about the job that he did individually."

Wirfs played every snap during camp with the first-team offense. It was for two reasons. The first was to allow him to develop chemistry with the rest of the starting offensive line and Brady. The returning starters brought him along. The only rookie hazing he had to endure was carrying center Ryan Jensen's helmet after practice. He built a little brother-big brother relationship with left tackle Donovan Smith, with the rookie and veteran FaceTiming and texting about sets or tricks of the trade during their down time.

"I think he's done a great job in camp," Brady said at the start of the season. "I know everyone [has] high expectations for someone picked at that position, but he's done a great job. He has a great way about him. Really love being in the huddle with him, he's got a great maturity for a younger player. He's obviously very talented, but he's just got a great attitude."

The second reason the Bucs worked Wirfs so consistently with the starters is because in training camp, the 1s go against the 1s, with the first-team offense facing off against the first-team defense. Without a preseason, the best way to prepare for the Saints and All-Pro Cameron Jordan in Week 1 was to have Wirfs face the Bucs' own duo of top-tier pass rushers as many times as possible. Shaquil Barrett was coming off a 2019 season in which he posted an NFL-leading 19.5 sacks. He tried new moves on Wirfs daily. Jason Pierre-Paul, meanwhile, has 89 career sacks, and the two bring completely different skill sets to the table.

"Tristan is the real deal," Barrett said with a smile during camp. "He's going to be a problem out there for a lot of edge rushers and whoever is going against him."

Watching every day of training camp from the sidelines, I rarely heard Wirfs' name; he never really did anything to get called out. Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was so focused on working with Brady, he admitted he forgot about his rookie right tackle at times, because he just didn't have to worry about him. It was during that time the Bucs started to feel Wirfs could hold his own one-on-one during the season. They wouldn't have to shift their protections to help him. Just as in camp, the training wheels were off when games mattered, and he was going to have to figure it out himself.

"He's a physical specimen, but he's a very bright guy," Arians said. "He's a very intense guy. He doesn't show it facially, but he's pretty intense. He'll help a guy up, but he loves knocking him down."

When the regular season hit, that's when Wirfs started exceeding those already high expectations. The Bucs allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL (22), even with Wirfs facing a murders' row of pass rushers. There was Jordan, the six-time Pro Bowler and power rusher, whom Wirfs saw three times (including playoffs). There was the Chargers' Joey Bosa, the elusive hand technician and three-time Pro Bowler. And the Rams tried to slide the best defensive player in the game, Aaron Donald, over to Wirfs' side in an attempt to expose the rookie, in Week 11.

"I don't think he had a tackle, so I think they did a pretty good job," Arians said after the game. "Tristan's been playing really well all year."

The only mistake Wirfs made that led to a sack came in Week 5 in Chicago, against former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack.

"Yeah. Obviously, he's a special rookie," Goodwin said of Wirfs late in the season. "Probably the last special one I've been around was Maurkice Pouncey (whom Goodwin worked with when he was on the Steelers' staff) -- just to come in and be a Day 1 starter type of guy [and] to excel at a high level from a playing standpoint has been awesome. I've been shocked -- especially with all the guys he's been against from a pass-rush standpoint -- he's held up pretty good. Obviously, we've talked before [about] that one hiccup against Khalil Mack, but other than that, he's been phenomenal."

Chiefs defensive line coach and run-game coordinator Brendan Daly, who went to three Super Bowls as a member of the Patriots staff, knows Brady well and what makes him successful. He believes the offensive-line play is what has allowed Brady to win every game since the Bucs fell short in a comeback attempt against their Super Bowl opponents back in Week 12. Daly also believes Wirfs specifically has done more than his share.

"Wirfs in particular is one of the more impressive rookies that I've seen in this league in a long while, to be honest," Daly told me. "He plays with a very physical nature. He's got good patience in terms of pass protection for a young player, in my opinion. He does a nice job with some variations with his punches. I think he's got the ability to handle speed on the edge, and I think he anchors fairly well on power."

Brady himself has raved about the protection he's been getting; it's been a key aspect to the evolution of Tampa's offense, which was highly scrutinized as it found its footing. In the playoffs, Tampa has won three straight road games against opponents ranked in the top 10 in sacks in the regular season: Washington (sixth), New Orleans (eighth) and Green Bay (10th).

Ahead of Tampa's wild-card matchup with Washington, the headlines were focused on star rookie pass rusher Chase Young. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft said after their regular-season finale that he was coming for Brady. Asked before the game about the rarity of seeing rookies as talented as Young, Bucs guard Ali Marpet sang the praises of another first-year pro.

"It's rare," Marpet said. "I think that we have one at tackle (Wirfs) that's playing very well coming right out of the gate. It's rare, but I guess we happen to have one, too."

For as much energy and flair Young plays with, Wirfs is the opposite. It's never too high or too low. His voice, just like his game, is always level and in control. When asked how he would handle Young's trash talk, Wirfs replied, "Oh, I don't know. I'm just going to do my job and go out there and protect Tom. I'm not a very good trash talker. I can't do it."

Young's stat line against the Bucs: 3 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 tackles for loss, 0 quarterback hits.

When analysts evaluate this rookie class, they'll see a number of remarkably impressive performances across the NFL, from Justin Herbert throwing for 4,336 yards, to Young making eye-popping plays with his generational athletic ability, to Wirfs' own teammate, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., whose name was regularly shouted by announcers as he produced game-changing plays.

Just like in training camp, we didn't hear Wirfs' name much. We probably won't hear it during awards season, either. And we might not hear it on Sunday. But we'll know he overcame a "wave of terror" to produce the most impactful season of any rookie this year.

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